I call it ingredient paranoia. If you work in a restaurant or bakery long enough, this just happens, like falling asleep on the beach and waking up burnt. One day, you’re noshing on cookie dough, straight from the mixer, not a care in the world. The next, you’re interrogating the cookie dough. Did I add the salt? Did I use this ⅓-cup measure instead of the ½-cup for the sugar? What about baking soda? I remembered baking soda, right? Did I use baking powder by accident? Oh my God, did I? Did I use baking powder by accident?
Well, what if I did? Would it make that much of a difference? Baking soda and baking powder have almost the same name. They’re both fast-acting chemical leaveners, which create gas and give rise to baked goods. And they both come in cute little containers. So what’s the difference?
Baking soda—a.k.a. sodium bicarbonate—reacts as soon as it’s mixed with a liquidy, acidic ingredient, producing carbon dioxide. Think fermented dairy products, like yogurt, buttermilk, and sour cream, or citrus juice, or molasses. Baking powder, on the other hand, is baking soda, plus a powdered acid, like cream of tartar. Most of the baking powder you’ll come in contact with will be double-acting, which means it reacts in the batter, then again in the hot oven.
To see just how much of a difference this makes, I put my ingredient paranoia to the test: I mixed up baking soda and baking powder on purpose. These two recipes were the guinea pigs. Some of them may or may not have been harmed during this experiment:
First up, a classic chocolate chip cookie recipe. I used my go-to by Dorie Greenspan. Most crispy-chewy chocolate chip cookie recipes call for just baking soda. I left out the chips, to eliminate another variable, yielding a simple brown sugar cookie. Batch #1, with baking soda, turned out flat and crisp, almost brittle-like once cooled. Batch #2, with baking powder, spread less and rose more, creating a less crunchy, more cakey cookie. It was also noticeably paler. Why? Baking soda’s extreme alkalinity encourages browning. I tried one, tried the other, tried one, tried the other. Both good! Tasty science!
While cookie recipes often rely on baking soda, cakes turn to baking powder. I used a fluffy, oil-based cake by our contributor Posie Harwood. What caught my eye: This recipe uses a decent amount of baking powder, which will make the swap that much more noticeable. And it includes two acidic ingredients: crème fraîche and lemon juice. Batch #1, with baking powder, went all according to plan. Batch #2, with baking soda, looked promising. In the oven, the cakes rose and colored more. Good and good, right? When removed from the muffin pan, they seemed a little impressionable and drunk—saggy when poked, slouchy when propped to stand on their own. But it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Batch #1 showcased a moist, even crumb. Batch #2 was more irregular, almost like sourdough bread. Cool! Then I tasted it—and scurried to the nearest trash bin to spit it out. Excuse me, sorry about that. It tasted entirely like, well, baking soda. Lesson learned.
Have you ever mixed up baking soda and baking powder? What happened? Tell us in the comments below!
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. See what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.